Indiana had dozens of teacher sexual misconduct cases in 5 years

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Indianapolis - A judge painted a chilling portrait of a former school psychologist before sentencing him to 385 years in prison for molesting two boys.

Stephen Serino had a "sexual appetite for young boys," the judge said, and used his professional training to choose victims and gain the confidence of their families. Then the molesting began, sometimes during overnight visits or after Wednesday night church services. One 13-year-old boy was molested more than 100 times.

It's a parents' nightmare. And it's one of 30 accounts of sexual misconduct by licensed teachers and school employees recorded from 2001 to 2005 in Indiana, according to a review by The Associated Press.

Sexual misconduct was reported in all types of schools - urban and rural, rich and poor, private and public. Victims were girls and boys, from 17 years old to as young as eight. Crimes included child molesting, sexual battery and child pornography. And the teachers involved were often those who spend time with students outside the classroom - band directors, choir teachers or coaches.

"Parents are concerned," said Marilyn Jones, a Hammond parent, former teacher and member of the Indiana PTA. "When you read the paper, you think, 'How can this happen? How do you make it not happen?"'

The state recorded 30 sexual misconduct cases over five years, with 17 involving student victims, the AP review found. Nearly all resulted in criminal convictions.

Indiana's figures were gathered as part of a seven-month investigation in which AP reporters sought records on teacher discipline in all 50 states and the District of Columbia. The state has more than 30,000 licensed teachers, and there are about 3 million public school teachers in the United States.

Across the country, sexual misconduct allegations led states to take action against the licenses of 2,570 educators from 2001 through 2005. That figure includes licenses that were revoked, denied and surrendered.

The numbers may alarm parents, but Indiana's school leaders and lawmakers say they are trying to protect children from predators.

Background checks are required for teachers, and the state Department of Education can revoke a license for a number of reasons, including "immorality." State Superintendent Suellen Reed said schools have become more open about reporting the issue in recent decades, which could prevent sexually abusive teachers from returning to education.

"Today people are much more anxious to get anybody who may be a danger to any child out of the school system," Reed said.

One of Indiana's most troublesome recent cases is that of Serino. His original prison sentence was reduced to 90 years by the Indiana Supreme Court, which said 385 years was excessive. Serino's earliest possible release date is 2046, when he would be 82 years old.

Another high-profile case involved a girls basketball coach in Carmel, an affluent Indianapolis suburb. In 2001, Donald Renihan was accused of having sexual relations with a team member.

Renihan pleaded guilty to child seduction and spent a brief time in jail before being released on probation. The team member, who said she was in love and not a victim, greeted him with a kiss outside the courthouse. By then she was 18, and she married the then-41-year-old Renihan less than a week after the sentencing.

Abuse prevention experts say sexual contact by a teacher or coach is wrong at any age.

"Either situation is a total betrayal of trust," said Sandy Runkle, with Prevent Child Abuse Indiana. "A teenager is not able to process that like an adult would."

The Carmel district now conducts federal background checks on employees and has other safeguards, but that's no guarantee that sexual abuse won't happen again, said Superintendent Barb Underwood.

"I wish we had the secret magic formula so it would never happen again," she said. "We feel a responsibility to protect all our young people."

State law requires districts to notify the Department of Education if a teacher is fired for sexual misconduct, and prosecutors must alert the department when a teacher is convicted of such crimes.

But experts say not all cases are reported, and not all abusive teachers are caught.

State Rep. Jerry Torr, a Republican from Carmel, said Indiana law should require districts to report when teachers resign to avoid being fired or when they are arrested, instead of waiting for convictions on such crimes.

"In the old days, that was just the norm," Torr said. "If a teacher was suspected of some kind of misconduct with a student, a lot of times the teacher would just agree to resign and then they'd move to another district."

The Indiana State Teachers Association supports background checks and other precautions, but points out the fine line between protecting students and making sure innocent teachers aren't wrongly accused.

"False allegations occur often enough that you have to rely on convictions rather than arrests," said Dan Clark, the union's deputy director.

The days of hugging a child or patting a student on the back may be gone. ISTA tells its members to be careful to avoid allegations of impropriety.

Education leaders say it is clear what schools must do when in doubt about an accusation.

"If they're going to make an error, it's going to be on the side of protecting children. For some people who really didn't do anything, that's going to be hard," Reed said. "But our first duty is to protect the children."

List by county:

The number of Indiana offenders, by county, and the year in which action was taken against their licenses:

ALLEN

East Allen County Schools, 2001, one teacher, female

BARTHOLOMEW

Bartholomew Consolidated School Corporation, 2002, one teacher, male

GREENE

Greene-Sullivan Special Education Cooperative, 2002, one teacher, male

HAMILTON

Carmel Clay Schools, 2002, one teacher, male

Hamilton Southeastern Schools, 2005, one teacher, male

HOWARD

Kokomo-Center Township Consolidated School Corporation, 2005, one teacher, male

KNOX

Vincennes Community School Corporation, 2003, one teacher, male

LAKE

Griffith Public Schools, 2005, one teacher, male

Merrillville Community School Corporation, 2005, one teacher, male

School City of Hammond, 2005, one teacher, male

LaGRANGE

Westview School Corporation, 2002, one teacher, male

LaPORTE

LaPorte Community School Corporation, 2004, one teacher, male

MADISON

Alexandria Community School Corporation, 2005, one teacher, male

MARION

Beech Grove City Schools, 2005, one teacher, male

Chapel Hill Christian School, 2005, one teacher, male

Indianapolis Public Schools, 2005, one teacher, male

Metropolitan School District of Pike Township, 2005, one teacher, male

MIAMI

Peru Community Schools, 2005, one teacher, male

MONTGOMERY

Crawfordsville Community Schools, 2005, one teacher, male

South Montgomery Community School Corporation, 2004, one teacher, male

NOBLE

Central Noble Community School Corporation, 2002, one teach, male

ST. JOSEPH

Penn-Harris-Madison School Corporation, 2002, one teacher, male

SHELBY

Shelbyville Central Schools, 2001, one teacher, male

TIPPECANOE

Lafayette School Corporation, 2003, one teacher, male

Tippecanoe School Corporation, 2003, one teacher, male

VIGO

Vigo County School Corporation, 2002, one teacher, male

OTHER

One teacher's Indiana license was revoked in 2003 involving a case in Missouri.

One person lost his license in 2005 involving a case in Grant County, but there was no information whether he was employed as a teacher.

One person's application for a license was rejected in 2005 because of a settlement agreement denying him a teacher's license in Florida.

One person's license was revoked in 2005 involving a case in Michigan.

Source: Indiana Department of Education, supplemented with court records, the Indiana sex offender registry, and AP and other news archives.

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